Writing Mukhtar Mai’s Story

Kamala Sankaram as Mukhtar Mai in Thumbprint; Photo: Noah Stern Weber / Beth Morrison Projects

Kamala Sankaram as Mukhtar Mai in Thumbprint; Photo: Noah Stern Weber / Beth Morrison Projects

NEWS: We’re thrilled and honored that Mukhtar Mai – whose historic bravery inspired “Thumbprint” – is traveling from Pakistan to witness her story told and join us for the talkbacks after each performance. If you don’t have a ticket yet, this is your chance to be part of this powerful moment.

After a brutal attack meant to destroy her, Mukhtar Mai became the first woman in Pakistan to bring her rapists to justice. Since then, Mai has become an international icon for women’s rights. She used the reparations money she received from the government to build schools for girls and continues to support women through her Mukhtar Mai Women’s Organization. Mai’s story resonates beyond borders in its implicit belief that even in the darkest times, one person, one voice, through a single act of courage, can change the lives of thousands.

Writer Susan Yankowitz has told Mai’s story for over a decade – as a monologue, then part of a play called Seven and now in the opera Thumbprint.

First performed in 2008, Seven is a documentary play that weaves together the stories of seven courageous women in the Vital Voices Global Leadership Network who, despite enormous obstacles, have made an indelible impact on the lives of women in their home countries. Seven was conceived by playwright Carol Mack, who brought on six other playwrights, including Yankowitz, to collaborate on the piece.

When asked why she chose to tell Mai’s story, Yankowitz says, “I was initially attracted to Mukhtar’s story, because the events of her life speak of possibility and transformation. The themes of violence toward women, the pain and voicelessness of the oppressed, also correspond to my own themes as a writer.”

Yankowitz then met with Mai several times to learn more about her story.

“Mukhtar did not set out to be a champion for women’s rights or to be a hero” says Yankowitz. “She was a modest, God-fearing woman, a devout Muslim who was thrust into this role and despite death threats, outrage from villagers and top government officials, chose life rather than suicide as custom dictated.”

From multiple interviews, Yankowitz wrote a monologue based on Mai’s story. Her monologue and monologues written by the other six writers were woven together into a single script called Seven.

To date, Seven has been performed in 32 countries worldwide and has been translated into 27 languages.

“I saw a performance of Seven in Istanbul in 2012. I sat in an audience filled with women who were struggling with this nexus of oppression, fear and violence,” recalls Yankowitz. “I felt that we, the writers of SEVEN, had done something important: We’d given a voice to women who are not able to articulate their struggles or who are forbidden from saying things that directly affect their lives.”

Following the success of Seven, Yankowitz was brought on to write the libretto for Thumbprint, an opera about how Mukhtar Mai discovered that she could use her voice to help women in her country.

“Writing a libretto is somewhere between writing poetry and writing a play,” says Yankowitz. “You need to balance the metaphors of poetry with the structure and intensity of drama.”

When asked about her writing process, Yankowitz discusses several approaches she took before she and composer Kamala Sankaram and director Rachel Dickstein agreed that the libretto conveyed Mukhtar’s story in a way that worked well with the music.

“My first take on the libretto was rather traditional and a little plodding,” recalls Yankowitz. “The second was too artificial and distancing. To me, the content of this story is just as important as its form and style. For a while, I could not figure out how to communicate Mukhtar’s story without mystifying it or making it too specific and literal.”

Yankowitz overcame this challenge by focusing on the major events in Mai’s life and weaving them together in a more impressionistic way.

She explains, “I took the main events in Mukhtar’s life, as if I held them in my hand, and wove them together in the libretto where they overlap, so that they are seen as interconnected moments in time.”

When asked about the most challenging aspects of writing Thumbprint, Yankowitz discusses the representation of the men who perpetrated the crime against Mai. “I care about Mukhtar and I don’t feel sympathy for the men who violated her.  But, as a writer, it is my job to try and understand them and why they felt justified in committing so vicious an act. No one gets up in the morning, looks at himself in the mirror, and thinks: ‘What an evil human being I am!’ On the contrary, such people see their actions as necessary to protect family honor and feudal traditions.”

Thumbprint premiered to rave reviews at the PROTOTYPE Festival in 2014. As part of LA Opera’s Off Grand Series, Thumbprint will have its West Coast premiere on Thursday, June 15. Yankowitz is very excited about the premiere and about the chance to share Mai’s story with more people.

“I hope the audience is moved to learn more about Mukhtar and her organization. I also hope they are inspired by her story and take away from the experience that any movement towards change must start somewhere – and it usually starts with a single voice. We all have that voice inside of us. That is ultimately what Mukhtar and her transformation represent.”

To learn more about and purchase tickets to Thumbprint, click here.

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One Response to Writing Mukhtar Mai’s Story

  1. Ra Ansari says:

    Salutes to Mai & all those who have suffered from any sort of dishonour & brutality in the world.

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